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8005 Days Later January 17, 2014

Posted by craftlass in beliefs, life lessons.
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I think about my mother most, if not all, days. In one month it will be the 22nd anniversary of her death by drunk taxi driver. That’s 8005 days so far. Probably on about 7500-7995 of those days my thoughts of her boil down to, “I wish I could ask Mom what she thinks about x…”

Then there are days like today, when the loss feels even more crushing than it did at the time, because it’s real now. It took about a year for me to process that she was really gone. We didn’t see each other much in those last years, both of us were far too busy, so it wasn’t strange to go for days without really crossing paths with her. It didn’t help that she didn’t look like herself in her coffin, either. Her head had been pretty much shattered or crushed in the accident and, while the mortician did a fantastic job of re-sculpting her face, it was even easier than in most cases to look right at it and be in complete denial. It was very important to some of our family to have an open casket, but that’s one of my few regrets, agreeing to that. I hate remembering that ruined head. It wasn’t hers.

Her head was where she lived. The thing that has always given me some measure of peace is the absolutely sincere conviction that she’d rather be dead than alive with a compromised brain. I would, too, and I will never be anywhere near as brilliant as she was.

Since she was killed in St. Maarten, it took a long time to get details of the accident and there are many I’ll never know, because I couldn’t be an advocate in any way, and advocates are often the only reason anyone tries to get to the truth. The police investigation was terribly bungled. We had to get a lawyer there to try to fight for us, but there was little he could do. The cops had let the driver go home, it took at least 15 minutes for them to test him for drugs and alcohol and, even though his levels of alcohol and cocaine were too high to make his story (the he had them after the accident) plausible, they just couldn’t prove he was drunk and high before they let him leave the scene.

For all I know, he’s still driving drunk and has hurt or killed others. I hope that is not the case. I hope he learned his lesson, that he remembers the day he took the life of a woman in her prime and came close to creating an orphan (my father managed to shock everyone by recovering, but it was touch-and-go for some time) and wants it to never, ever happen again. I don’t know who he is, so I will never know. I’d rather not know. I’d rather have hope.

I don’t understand how anyone can have even a drink and get behind the wheel. Once upon a time, sure, but since the 80s no one can claim ignorance about the effects of alcohol on your reflexes. I have a deep love of whiskey (and whisky), craft beers, good tequila, and fine cocktails. I’ve been tempted to have “just one” when I was the driver many times. But it’s not worth it. Nothing is worth it. Exactly one time I had a little champagne before I drove a very short way, and I still haven’t stopped beating myself up for it, 18 years later.

The way I see it, if one drink makes me feel even slightly more relaxed, then one drink is too many for driving. It’s a good lesson to get pounded in so deeply before getting a driver’s license.

Until the past few years, when my social life expanded globally thanks to social media, I could honestly say that most of the people I love are dead. That’s a strange thing to be true in your 20s and early 30s, at least, according to friends. The concept that anyone can get to adulthood without losing a whole lot of people is foreign to me.

Please don’t feel bad for me about this, it’s not necessarily a bad truth. Death is something we all have to deal with and you need to learn your own best methods for grieving. Experience is the only way to learn. My family didn’t ever spare me from attending wakes and funerals, even as a toddler, and I’m endlessly grateful for that decision. I could never have planned a funeral attended by hundreds at the age of 15 without having attended a few myself in the past. Planning her funeral was the best thing for me at the time, I learned that hard work and strategizing in times of trouble was my best way to cope, lessons that I have used in many situations since, like volunteering at Ground Zero and managing our “refugee” lives during Sandy. I learned that I could stand up to adults who wanted to treat me like a little kid and use their power to influence me or take me out of the equation, a very empowering thing for a teenager.

I think it’s also why I don’t fear death, and has a lot to do with my lack of faith in a higher power or afterlife. I hadn’t had faith in monotheism for a long time before my mother died, but if there was any chance I’d come back to it, it died with her. Immortality has no attraction for me. The brevity of life is exactly what makes it so exciting. Every single day matters. Thinking that you have more waiting for you after death (especially with all sorts of conditions on what that next life could be) can prevent you from living this life to the fullest. Heck, even if I’m wrong, and there is something more, why squander this life on that chance?

The only immortality that matters is the life that you live in the hearts and minds of those who cared about you and your work. I’ve run into some old students of my mother’s who were deeply affected by her, including kids who never expected to go to college before she came into their lives but did because she pushed them and are so glad. About 800 people turned up to her funeral. She was popular and beloved and I had no idea until the crowds packed our church. She earned it. She tirelessly worked to make the lives of everyone around her better. She made a lot of enemies along the way, too, but you have to in order to make a real difference, especially in the nasty field of public education. Even a lot of people who didn’t necessarily like her much showed up to honor her out of respect. It was amazing.

I really wish I could have understood any of this when she was alive. It’s pretty common to take your mother for granted, especially in adolescence. You can’t really know who your parents are until you are an adult, you can’t understand their jobs and lives from the perspective of childhood. Now that I understand my mother better as a whole person, I just wish I could talk to her about it all. I wish I could ask her opinion of current events, especially in education. I really, really wish that I could discuss her scholarly work from her PhD days and hear more about her early travels, and tell her that her dissertation is now considered a serious academic source cited by many scholars in recent years. That would make her so happy!

Ah, well. Nothing that can be done. But this is why I have days where the wounds still feel very fresh, even after 8005 of them.

I’d be a different person if my mother was still around. I would have had far less control of my own decisions through my young adult years, she was pretty controlling in some ways and would be very upset with some aspects of my life. I would have been more protected through those years as well, and that is not an appealing idea at all. Like everything in life, there are pros and cons to my mother being gone.

Other losses are much simpler to process, I just flat-out miss the people and their presence in my life and I grieve for them without holding back. With my mother, it’s very complicated. Most of my life has been pretty amazing, and I’m pretty sure I’d have missed out on most of my best adventures if she had been around. But I would have had other adventures and experiences, and who knows how cool they could have been? Not worth dwelling on. There are no answers. I’m 99.9999% sure that I would never have met the love of my life, which is the ultimate reason to be glad things worked out as they did, no matter how difficult.

Most days, I let these conflicted thoughts help me cope and the happy memories and gratitude over having the mother I did are the raft I float on.

Today is just not one of those days.

But, I’m not sharing this to make anyone sad. I’m sorry if I have. The thing is, you may miss someone forever and there will be rough days, but if you allow yourself to feel all the feelings, it does get better. The days I miss my mother the most are also the days her memory inspires me to fight the good fights, share experiences, and appreciate what little time I have with everyone I care about.

If you find yourself thinking about my mom’s story the next time you have a choice about drinking and driving and let it influence your choice, this is all worth sharing just for that.

If you find yourself taking the people you care about a little less for granted today, even better.

But the best thing of all would be if you take this as a wake-up call to follow your passions, then you really get the point. You could be dead tomorrow. What are you going to do with today?

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Bursting Bubbles November 22, 2013

Posted by craftlass in beliefs, education, life lessons.
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“It’s not gonna make a difference. I can’t beat them. All I have on my side is facts and science. And people hate facts and science.” – Amy Poehler as Leslie Knope

There. In one tiny part of a scene, the writers of Parks and Recreation captured the core of my frustration with the world.

I’ve written a lot about the wonders of finding like-minded people to talk to, largely thanks to social media and the breaking of geographic barriers. The internet has brought us together and torn us further apart than ever at the same time. While I marvel at finding out I can chat both about Mars and the Bard with a guy who literally had a job where he “drove a car” on Mars, other people are marveling at how awesome it is that they can share their willful ignorance with like-minded people. If I can name thousands of sites to back up my claims, well, they can too. The problem with the easy sharing of information is that the ease of spreading disinformation grows just as rapidly.

It’s so easy to wrap yourself up in bubbles. While it’s an easy joke to say that Republican politicians are in a bubble, as Bill Maher likes to point out most weeks, the truth is, most people swan dive right into one bubble or another. It’s easy to focus solely on information that backs you up.

It’s also really easy to ignore things you don’t agree with. That’s where things get really dangerous.

Remember “dittoheads” as a term? You don’t hear it as much these days, I’m not sure if it’s because Rush Limbaugh finally annoyed even his listeners to the point where they aren’t proudly calling themselves by a name that essentially means, “I let someone else think for me,” or if he just doesn’t have the juice he once had in general. Again, easy to poke fun at Rush and his fans, but it’s no less scary when someone acts that way towards any other persona. I know a guy who quotes Rachel Maddow so consistently that even when he’s making a good point, it’s lost, because he sounds more like a Myna bird than a person expressing his own ideas.

I’m not saying it’s not okay to quote people to back up your arguments. Heck, I quoted a fictional character here! The problem is when the vast majority of your quotes come from a single source, be it your professor or pastor or Fox News or MSNBC or the Bible or the Constitution of the United States.

There is no such thing as a perfect person, document, group, organization, scientific study, government, or work of art. There is no such thing as perfection. And this is coming from a perfectionist.

If you don’t mind my utilizing a little more wisdom gleaned somehow from the land of sitcoms, an older The Big Bang Theory rerun got me thinking recently. For those who don’t watch the show, Leonard (Johnny Galecki) is an experimental physicist who comes from a whole family of overachievers, where being a physicist at a leading institution doesn’t even rank. When his mother comes to visit he promises to take her to see his lab, but as they walk off for the tour he mentions he’s currently duplicating an experiment done by an Italian team. She remarks that she might as well just read the paper by the Italians while Leonard’s roommate (a theoretical physicist) mocks him for his lack of original research. It’s a funny scene that has made me laugh many times, and a fairly accurate portrayal of intellectual snobbery, but in this last viewing I got a little angry. One of the duties of an experimental physicist is to duplicate results found by others. That’s how science works. Without duplication, the first experiment isn’t worth anything. The results could have been a fluke or the result of uncaught human error or even something as unpredictable as an errant breeze might have upset something (depending on the type of research, of course). There is nothing less than noble about being the person who proves the original results are correct and a scientist should know better. Maybe it’s nobler, as you do get less credit.

One of the reasons the Olympics are exciting is that, quite often, the favorite fails to win the gold. When a huge championship is decided by a single event the underdogs actually have a bit of an advantage, because they are not subjected to as much pressure or bugged as much by distractions like giving interviews. That’s why a lot of sports leagues have multi-game playoffs and championships. It’s very likely that an underdog can win a Super Bowl (a single competition) but less likely for an underdog to win a World Series or Stanley Cup (a series of competitions). A single, very-first-to-be-done, experiment is like the Olympics or the Super Bowl, and the only way to find out if the results are good are to repeat, repeat, repeat.

That’s why science works better than any other system of gaining knowledge. It is absolutely imperfect, because it’s done by humans. Science can contradict itself in the short term, but that’s why scientists keep working the problem until the correct answer is found, even if it takes thousands of years to get there. Repeat, repeat, repeat. Scientific studies can be corrupted by the source of funding. That’s okay because it is inevitable, that’s why you need studies repeated by all the sectors from utterly public government programs to private corporations. More data, always more data. Studies can back up any sort of nonsense, until they are repeated by scientists from other organizations with other funding. Repeat, repeat, repeat.

Flawed studies have created all sorts of weirdness from diet crazes to the non/less-religious arm of the anti-vaccination movement. We hear the results of flawed studies all the time, which sometimes leads to hilarious contradictions like hearing, “Don’t ever drink alcohol if you want to be healthy!” on the 6 o’clock news and then, “Drink a glass of red wine every day for heart health!” on the 11 o’clock. The repeat attempts rarely make headlines and often disprove those early studies. Sometimes there are signs pointing in different directions for years before the truth is revealed. Science is not glamorous. It’s not for those who crave instant gratification. The media and science are on completely different time tracks.

Part of me would love to work in some form of “pure” scientific research, because I’d love to be contributing to the body of human knowledge, but part of me realizes that I just don’t have the patience. That’s okay, too, it’s just how I formed and I have different skills.

But just because I’m not a scientist and never will be in any academic/professional sense doesn’t mean that I shouldn’t approach everything with a scientific mindset. I need to read, listen to, and watch things I disagree with as well as those I am inclined to agree with. I need to talk to people who challenge my thoughts as they grow into beliefs. I have deep cravings for raw data that I can interpret myself, not just other people’s interpretations (although I’d like to have at least 3 contradictory interpretations by experts, please). I even have sort of a strange(?) habit of coming up with specific questions that I ask everyone I wind up talking to over a period of a few months, just to get the widest possible range of spontaneous conversational answers as I can as someone without a research grant or access to a call center and phone lists, like mini-polling with room for additional comments. Most importantly, I must change my mind when all of the information I’ve collected, from anecdotes to proper scientific data (if available, depending on topic), shows me a different answer than expected. The process never ends. I will most certainly die with more questions than answers in my head, no matter how much I learn or develop deeply-held beliefs across the span of my lifetime. That’s a good thing.

I don’t care what any individual believes, I care how a person approaches knowledge. It’s entirely possible to look at the same data and interpret it differently, because we are always informed by our past experiences. That’s just being human. Refusing to look at data (and the methodologies behind that data), both for and against your position, is choosing to not exercise your greatest strength as the most successful animal on Planet Earth.

We’re all born as scientists in a sense, curious about our bodies, the people we see, and the world around us. We explore and interact and experiment and try the same thing a few times before we learn what hurts and what feels good and what makes our parents angry or makes them laugh. Trial-and-error, the basic principle behind the grander scientific method, is our default in those early years. It’s why babyproofing is a thing. What makes some people lose that sense of wonder and curiosity? What makes some people become followers? Why do some people flatly deny facts that are backed up by the vast majority of research? And why do some people retain all of that curiosity to the point where they’re willing to go deep into jungles or the Arctic or space to look for answers?

If we can find the answers to those particular questions, maybe we’ll care less about what other people think or pushing our own beliefs on others because we’ll all be too busy trying to learn what we ourselves think. That’s my idea of utopia. Not a place where we all believe exactly the same things, but a place where we are open to one simple statement… I may be wrong, but I’m going to do everything I can to find out. A place where people don’t hate facts and science.

Imagine what we could learn…

Singing in the Wind July 24, 2012

Posted by craftlass in beliefs, current issues, people, women's rights.
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When I decided to apply for, and then got, a grant to go to The Amaz!ng Meeting (TAM) courtesy of Surly Amy and those who supported her grant campaign I was expecting a weekend of hearing smart talks that would make me a better thinker and meeting people who lived up to the “amazing” part of the title. I didn’t expect to step into a tornado of what feminism really means, people who would do just about anything to keep whatever privilege they were born into, and whether or how people should go about changing things.

See, I’m new to the skeptic circles, even though I’ve been one all my life, to some degree. I wasn’t really aware there was a community built around it, I’d only read some of the blogs and never imagined there were meeting of skeptics all over the country. I had heard of TAM itself and thought it sounded like something I should check out for the past few years but was otherwise mostly ignorant. I just like to think about things and like meeting others who do, too. TAM was my very first experience in the real world of this community. Sure, I’d read about harassment issues a little but had no idea how big of a line was being drawn. The first day or so I was out there my ears were filled with exclamations of, “You don’t listen to any skeptic podcasts?!?!” and, “You don’t know who that is? But he’s a celebrity skeptic!”

Frankly, I’m usually pretty busy and, while I love to find new information, I mostly just catch articles people tweet about when I take a break, sheer luck of the draw. I also worked in music for too long to care at all about celebrity (with one notable exception: I seem to keep embarrassing myself by being starstruck by Starstryder, Dr. Pamela Gay, who impressed the heck out of me the first time I saw her talk and has made me understand difficult concepts I thought I wasn’t smart enough to comprehend. That, my friends, is a woman who should be earning more than Oprah and have stars with her name on sidewalks all over the world! At the very least, she should be a household name that every little girl dreams of emulating when she grows up).

After I announced that I got a grant and was going I was asked privately by a tweep, “Aren’t you scared to go to TAM? I’ve heard there’s a lot of harassment there.” The thing is, not much scares me. I’ve lived in bad neighborhoods in New York City, spent a chunk of time in the real Jamaica (not just the touristy bits), and worked in an industry not exactly known for treating women like actual people. Heck, I spent my early 20s mostly trundling about the country as the only woman with various bunches of men who were pretty much strangers to me when I first traveled with them. The vast majority of my experiences were fantastic and I’m glad I jumped into them with a big splashy cannonball even if my choices might appear to be a bit foolish.

Well, TAM worked out that way for me, too. I met a lot of great people. I learned a lot at talks and in conversations at the bar afterwards. I made connections that I’m so glad to have and might even have some really cool opportunities coming my way due to being there. My life would be quite different right now if I hadn’t gone out of fear. In fact, the only time I was harassed at all it was by someone at the hotel for another event and one of the male speakers actually stepped in to help me before we’d ever introduced ourselves.

On the other hand, I experienced a lot of vicarious harassment that was dealt to people I really like and respect, including my marvelous benefactor. I saw the effects of trolling, judgment, and people rather casually inflicting pain on purpose in many ways. How do you help someone who has been torn down, over and over, even by the very people she is constantly standing up for? A person can only absorb so much hatred without ill effects no matter how strong. I’ve experienced it myself, I’ve seen it happen to others, and I’m exhausted by just thinking about it.

From what I understand, Amy came up with the idea to create grants for women because there is a disproportionately low number of women attending or speaking at TAM. There is a lot of discourse about whether the James Randi Educational Foundation (the group that puts TAM on) should adopt a harassment policy for this pinnacle event in the skeptic community. The result of the community’s conversations and JREF’s lack of movement on this turned out to be a lower female attendance this year. I completely understand why some women stayed away. I also think it’s hard to take a stand without showing up unless you are a big enough name that people notice (which is true of certain women who didn’t go this year and I completely support their decisions). However, the best way to defeat –isms like sexism and racism is usually to show up. I might be wrong when it comes to TAM, as it does cost quite a lot and hurting an organization in the wallet can work, but I’m also glad that I was one of the women who went and talked openly with all sorts of participants about the problems. These conversations dominated the weekend. No matter what people were talking about the subject always seemed to turn to harassment issues. This is a good thing.

I honestly believe that most people want to do the right thing and genuinely would like a harassment-free environment. The reason that denialists and bigots of all sorts are so vocal is they would otherwise be drowned out by the cooler and more knowledgeable heads that outnumber them (this also applies to the Tea Party). Many people don’t even have an informed opinion about harassment until they have talked to victims of it or experienced it first-hand. They are ignorant due to accident of birth and upbringing and can have their heads turned by learning about what women (or gays or any other group of frequent targets) go through all the time, no matter what community they exist in. This last group is the one that needs to meet people who have experienced problems and often those types do learn how to be more thoughtful in their words and actions. It’s a giant group effort of making people think and even people who identify as “critical thinkers” need more to think about. Should a community that prides itself on looking for hard answers be better informed on all of this? Yes. How can we make that happen if we don’t speak to them and make it clear that all people must be treated as equals?

In the midst of all this, my gibberish-inducing hero Dr. Pamela Gay stepped up to the microphone. Seeing her on the list of speakers was a major reason I applied for the grant and she had warned me the night before that this was going to be a very emotional talk. It was listed in the program as “Make the World Better (Ask if Anyone Minds Later)” and that sounded right up my alley. This very accomplished speaker admitted she was a bit nervous about this talk but as soon as she opened her mouth you could see strength and resolve take over. Her introduction was cursory, then she exploded into, “The past few weeks leading into TAM have been absolutely insane. Looking around the internet there have been terrible sadnesses and awe inspiring goodness. We live in a world that sometimes seems like nothing but extremes.” With that, she was off and running, giving examples of how crowds of perfect strangers banded together to right wrongs and support other strangers, yet peppered with the realities of harassment in several segments of society, especially science academia and the skeptic community gathered before her. It was the bravest and most honest talk I have ever seen at a conference of any kind. They gave her a microphone and presentation equipment and she gave us all a blast of how we can be responsible for making the world the way it is, good and bad. Now, run off and read the full text, this will be here when you get back.

She got a long standing ovation. I’m pretty sure she’s also gotten some backlash because that is what happens when you are brave, strong, and willing to call people out even if done in a most delicate and gracious manner. Be part of the ovation or go think long and hard about why you’re not.

I don’t know about you, but at a moment when I’m questioning why I’ve sacrificed almost all my personal stability to struggle as an artist, I really needed those words. What feeds me most is hearing people talk about how my music has changed their perspective on issues I care about or taught them something while they were entertained. I have a giant stockpile of music that no one has heard yet and some of it might be controversial enough to cause me problems with all sorts of haters. Granted, that worries me less than questions about how to afford all that recording, but it does cross my mind. I don’t care anymore, though. I want to change the world so that those who come after me can live in an altogether better version of it. Heck, I want to live in a better world now. I want to participate as actively as I can. Won’t you join me?

***

P.S. There is no way to say enough about how grateful I am to Surly Amy for making it possible for me to go. This was a life-changing event made possible by the kindness of strangers, an embodiment of how we can affect the lives of others. So, please, if you have the money (they’re not expensive) and don’t outright dislike ceramic jewelry, please go find a beautiful SurlyRamic to buy for yourself or someone you love. They are very high-quality and there are plenty of creative and fun designs to choose from for all.

Also, a new group that I am very enthusiastic about, Secular Woman, is trying to give grants to at least 10 women to get to SkeptiCON this fall. If you can, please donate to this excellent cause.

While I’m at it and you have your digital wallet out, if you want to support my efforts in a financial way, please make a donation or go buy some of my music on my Bandcamp site (other sites take over 2 months to pay me for your purchase, FYI. Bandcamp pays me nearly instantly. It rocks).

We CAN All Just Get Along, We Just Have to Try July 12, 2012

Posted by craftlass in beliefs, life lessons, people, relationship.
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Being who I am, if I restricted myself to socializing with people who agree with me on most things, I wouldn’t have a social life. Even worse, I would be stuck, like so many people are, in a bubble. Still worse, I would spend my life being so much angrier than I am. Oh, I’m angry about a lot of things and find plenty more to be angry about every day, but for the most part my anger is directed at media, politicians, religious leaders, group-think, and generally people who use their power to harm or oppress.

I cherish my friends who might seem on paper like people I could never get along with. For example, two women who I absolutely adore are Catholic. One is more in-line with the Church’s positions on things, one is a bit of a maverick, but they both know my opinions on their religion, that I was raised in it, and left the second I could for very good reasons. I have the utmost respect for both women and value their opinions on many subjects, even ones we will never see eye-to-eye on. We also have a lot in common, that’s how we found each other online and bonded. I met both in-person at different NASA Tweetups (now called Socials) at Kennedy Space Center and we just clicked like we had online, which deepened our relationships immensely. With one of them I’ve had many long debates on the things we disagree about and enjoyed every bit of them.

The thing is, if you don’t have calm, rational debates with people you disagree with, how can you truly hold a position? If how you feel about something can be broken down just by hearing the other side then maybe you didn’t believe it in the first place. If someone simply disagreeing with you makes you want to lash out, that’s your problem and you need to work on your own issues. You can’t educate anyone if you attack, either. Once a person is in a defensive position it’s very hard to learn anything or even fully comprehend the attack.

The wisest, kindest, and most thoughtful priest I ever knew took me aside when I was in 2nd grade and getting into major trouble in my Catholic school for deeply questioning the faith I’d been born into. He listened to my concerns and answered with, “Unquestioned faith is no faith at all. Keep questioning everything.” While I have wound up without a faith, his wisdom still resonates in me. I apply it to many aspects of my life and it gets me through moments of indecision and second-guessing.

Why, yes, I did say that one of the best lessons this atheist learned in life came from a priest. See? Even people you disagree with can add a lot of value to your life if you just give them the chance to speak their minds. They challenge you, give you perspective, and keep you out of that damn bubble.

The only things I require of any friend or potential friend are an open mind, respect for both our similarities and differences, tolerance for each other’s flaws, and a sense of humor. Okay, the last part is actually the most important. Laughter can get you through just about anything!

In the end, not only do I celebrate the differences between many people and me, but I keep coming to the same conclusion: We have more in common than not. All people, no matter their affiliation or background, have more in common than not, when you get down to the real person hiding behind whatever labels society may affix to them. Travel is the greatest teacher of this, but just getting to know your neighbors can give you a great lesson in it.

Of course there are people I like more than others and people who I will never get along with. That’s the nature of life and being human. That doesn’t mean I or anyone should ever be purposefully rude or unkind to any of them and it’s not that hard to be tactful and polite while staying true to yourself.

I’ve never been a big joiner, I prefer solo sports and video games, working for myself or a small business, and keeping my options open in every way. I’m sort of a loner with a talent for socializing that hides my anxieties about it. Still, I believe in inclusion and never taking gossip to heart, I’d rather try to get to know someone before making up my mind about him or her. Gossip is poison in the form of a giant game of Operator, only it’s not a game at all, and we can all get sucked into that trap far too easily.

Maybe that’s why I don’t like joining groups much. From what I can tell, most operate with a social structure that breeds gossip, divisiveness, and hurt feelings when someone is left out or the group forms a hierarchy. It’s a shame, as people can do more good when joined together by a common cause, but then all of these things start flourishing and can turn even the most noble group into a monster that resembles a high school cafeteria more than an adult venture.

On the other hand, I do love being surrounded by intelligent, thoughtful, and interesting people of all kinds and working together to make good things happen. It’s the only way to effect real change. All of my music, at it’s essence, is based on that. I might be writing about space or science or religion or politics, but at the core of every song is a human story inspired by the people I’m so lucky to have in my life. This very blog post was inspired by a multitude of individual conversations with a few different people.

I love people. All people. We’re amazing. We have thoughts and feelings and the capability to explore everything from ourselves to the universe surrounding us. We’ve come a long way in just a few million years! We also have a long way to go as long as we don’t blow everyone up. You can choose to be part of the effort of advancement or you can stay mired in where we are now, because you have a human brain that can make decisions.

“The truth is, everyone is going to hurt you. You just got to find the ones worth suffering for.” – Bob Marley

So, my advice to everyone everywhere (including myself) is to be a little less quick to judge, a little more open to listening to anyone, a bit more polite to all, and to learn about a topic from all angles before deciding on your own opinion. Getting to know who people really are is the most effective way to reduce the amount of anger and hatred in this world, and doesn’t that benefit us all?

Guilt and Language July 2, 2012

Posted by craftlass in beliefs, current issues, politics, women's rights.
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I am a feminist and atheist.

These days, those words are treated more like curse words than any term for genitalia. It’s a clever way to try to take the power out of them, it makes a lot of people apologize for being either or both. Language is a living thing, as any writer or English major can tell you, and usage can completely change the meaning of the word.

For example, let’s look at “conservative”. Politically, it used to mean someone who believed in small government, letting people make their own choices as long as they don’t harm other people on purpose, and allowing the market and society to sort things out without government intervention. These days in America, it means people who want to shrink the parts of government that help people, grow those that don’t, think companies are somehow more human and should have more rights than actual people, and want to restrict the rights of individuals if they happen to be anything but straight men. Often, it is also used to describe people who want America to turn into a theocracy, as long as it’s based on the Christian Bible (usually the woman-hating King James version that was commissioned by a man who was probably gay, but let’s not dwell on those ironies beyond a good chuckle).

See? Words are malleable. A century ago I would be a staunch conservative, now I’m a wild liberal simply because I believe in a person’s right to choose how to live her or his own life. I am exactly the same person with the same convictions, either way. It’s the definition that has changed.

I was raised very Catholic (as seems to be the case with many atheists). One of the classic stereotypes of that particular religion deals with guilt. Catholic children are taught to feel guilty about everything, even just being born. Catholic parents, clergy, and teachers often use guilt as a tool and it can be pretty effective. My poor godmother still has the ability to make me feel truly awful about the fact that I’m not Catholic simply by telling me that she thinks it is her fault, that she did something wrong and could have made me devout if she had just done something different. She’s completely wrong about that, it was the Church and the Bible that made me an atheist and the only way she could have changed those was to go back thousands of years to change everything about both. Still, letting her and other family members down is the only thing about my choices that bothers me. I got pretty lucky in the family lottery of adoption and would love to make them all proud in every way but I can’t deny basic truths about myself just to make anyone feel better.

Similarly, I see a lot of women who are strong supporters of women’s equality and rights who are afraid to call themselves feminists. There seem to be two causes for this: 1) They are not quite sure what feminism actually means and don’t want to use a term they don’t understand; 2) The word has a lot of negative connotations these days. The former is a good reason to not use a label and should be inspiration for further study, the latter is a horrifying one. When people demonize feminism and we allow them to take the word away from us we are handing over the power of the word. Isn’t that analogous to handing over all of our power? Isn’t that the exact opposite of our goals?

There is so much misinformation being disseminated about feminism. I think it’s a pretty simple thing, feminists want equality and full participation on every level of society and for women to be able to make their own decisions. What is wrong with that? With the exception of true misogynists I think most people want that, when you boil everything down to the essence. I don’t want women to control everything, I just want over half the population to have an equal voice. This is not how things are at this time. When Congress bans women from testifying about contraception, when state governments relegate the women within them to working only on minor areas of state law, when politicians equate women with livestock… We are nowhere near equal. If anything, we are losing the ground that the generation before mine paved for us.

According to Save the Children, the United States is one of the worst places in the developed world to be a woman (they make it painfully clear that we can not begin to compare the developing and developed world, so please don’t comment that women here have it better than those in places like sub-Saharan Africa, okay? We know that already). We are behind in almost every category they study, from amount of women in powerful positions in government to basic needs like being able to breastfeed our children without reducing our paychecks significantly.

In a country that reveres children to a sometimes unhealthy point isn’t it weird that we care so little about the only people who can bear them? Once again, oppressive people want us to feel guilty for wanting careers, wanting to choose whether and when to get pregnant or not, even down to guilty about what we wear or how we have fun. I recall an old friend telling me about her stint in a mental hospital and how one of the ways to show you are ready to be let out is to do your hair nicely and wear makeup because that is “normal” behavior for women, even if you’ve never owned a lipstick in your life. Really? Should I feel guilty because makeup is something I generally reserve for the stage and fancy nights out when there are real things to worry about? A woman could be crushed under the weight of it all and many are. There are so many levels of societal oppression and even the little things are part of an overall pattern that culminates in things like the War on Women and women who truly believe they are worth less than their fathers, husbands, and even the sons they have raised.

I’m done with all of it. I refuse to give in and feel guilty about who I am and what I fight for. I didn’t get a choice about being born female, intelligent, and with some talents. I do get to choose how to use what I have, though, wherever it came from.

I’m taking my cue from the gay community, who took the insulting meanings out of “gay” and “queer” and turned them into positive ways to identify themselves. Go to any Pride March and you’ll see countless examples of how words with formerly negative connotations are now celebrated as empowering. It breaks my heart when I hear young people using them as insults again, but I think the positive aspects will far outlive any negative ones in time, especially if we keep educating relentlessly about how it’s okay to be whoever you were born as or have been sculpted into by your experiences.

Restricting or abolishing the use of a word never has the desired consequence of eliminating the meaning, but changing the definition can. It takes the guilt and stigma out and replaces it with strength and unity. It takes time and constant effort but it’s one of the few things that can actually change the way people think in the long run.

I am a feminist and atheist.

This Most Awesome Space Cathedral November 19, 2010

Posted by craftlass in beliefs, NASA, NASAtweetup, space, the cool factor, travel, tribute.
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I am a huge fan of huge buildings. Having spent most of my life living near or in New York City I suppose it was inevitable that I would have strong feelings on these monuments to human achievement. Their peaks have filled my view from various angles and distances and every time, without fail, I have been awestruck for at least one moment.

The Woolworth Building reminds me of the power of nickels-and-dimes long after the stores themselves no longer had items priced that low and then disappeared from the American landscape. It’s a beautiful monument to the American dream and still takes my breath away every time I turn the corner to look up at it or spy it amongst the newer, cleaner (but far less interesting) structures that now surround it in the skyline. The Chrysler Building, though the tallest in the world for only a brief moment, is still possibly the most beautiful piece of architecture ever dreamed up, and the criticism that it was, “a stunt design, evolved to make the man in the street look up,” is actually one of the greatest compliments a building could receive as it does exactly that to the new visitor and jaded New Yorker alike. The Empire State Building has so many features one could spend a lifetime studying it and still look upon it and be surprised by one never noticed before. The World Trade Center towers, gone for far too long already, still loom over the skyline in my mind when I gaze across the Hudson. The word “awesome” is so overused today but one only needs to look to these buildings to remember what it actually means.

*****

I thought my own history with buildings of this order would prepare me for my first glimpse of NASA’s Vehicle Assembly Building (VAB). As I stood on the pier of Space View Park, miles away, waiting to watch the landing of STS-129, I couldn’t take my eyes off of it. Even from that distance it was impressive, and standing alone, without a skyline to give it context, even more so. As we later drove towards it on the tour bus I filled my companions’ ears with trivia I had learned about it, like the fact the lines on the flag painted on it’s side were large enough for the bus we were on to drive down one. As it grew larger and larger in my view, though, I lost my thoughts and simply stared until I got the wherewithal to grab my camera to take the first of hundreds of pictures I would take obsessively on my visits to Kennedy Space Center. I was awestruck in a whole new way. A new dream formed, one I thought would always go unfulfilled, a dream of standing inside that building and getting to take in it’s immensity and history.

VAB from Turn BasinI had the incredible fortune of getting a lot closer for the launch of STS-131. The area I was in, known as the Turn Basin for the lake next to the site where the external tanks and solid rocket boosters come in on their ships, was right next to the VAB with only the Launch Control Center standing between us. The vast VAB loomed over us through the night as we waited for the launch and I stared at it in all it’s lit-up glory for much of that time, unable to turn away except for glimpses of Discovery on her pad. I walked around and took in as many angles as I could, sometimes photographing, sometimes just staring with my mouth open in quiet appreciation.

Almost a year later I received an invitation to an event that would have taken me inside. I cried for days at the realization I simply could not attend, and I’m usually not the sort to cry over such things. It felt like I was killing my own dream by giving in to circumstances beyond my control and hurt me on a level I didn’t know possible. All over a building!

At that point I had received confirmation that I was invited to the 3rd NASA launch tweetup but, having followed avidly the tweeps at the first two, I knew the VAB was well out-of-reach even with all the VIP treatment they had received. It wasn’t even a consideration in my excitement for the event.

VAB from the BaseOn day two of the tweetup we loaded onto our busses, curious about what we would see on our special tour. My bus was dubbed “the cool bus” and it was indeed cool to me, as we not only had organizers Stephanie Schierholz and Beth Beck on board along with a knowledgeable and entertaining tour guide, but most of my closer friends in the group. We were already bouncing with excitement as we took over the back of the bus. Suddenly, our guide started walking the aisle, handing out little cards with clips that turned out to read, “NASA Special Guest,” that he said we would have to hand back. I hadn’t heard an announcement so this piqued my curiosity even more. When Stephanie called us to attention and told us we were going inside the VAB it took a few moments to hit my brain, I was certain I must have heard wrong until everyone started completely freaking out. The only thing I could equate it to was the old films of teen girls screaming for the Beatles.

As we got off the bus outside this venerable structure everyone scrambled to take pics or pose for them. I pulled out my camcorder to record this once-in-a-lifetime moment when we stepped through the doorway and tried to capture a giant pan of it all and my fellow tweetuppers reaction. Where a moment before we had been deafening in our glee we all went suddenly quiet with reverence.

There we were, standing in the building that was needed to get America to orbit and on to the moon. Where the majestic Saturn V rockets had stood in all their glory. Where the pieces of Columbia, one of the greatest tragedies of exploration, lie tucked away safely now so researchers can learn forever from our mistakes. Where the mostly nameless, faceless workaday heroes of the space program have toiled for decades to physically make possible the greatest adventures known to humans. Where, at that moment, the solid rocket boosters of the last planned shuttle mission were just beginning to be stacked, the familiar cones standing in a corner looking small and almost innocuous despite their impressive size.

Past, present, and future came crashing down on me and I turned off the camcorder to soak it all in.

The same group who had been so loud in shared joy just a few minutes earlier was completely changed. Most were silent, some were speaking in the hushed tones usually reserved for church or a library. Don’t get me wrong, the energy was still all there, but something in that building begged for quiet reverence. When I commented on the reaction to a friend she replied, “Yes, because it is a space cathedral.”

She had it exactly right.

*****

I was a very lucky kid, my parents either took me on or enabled me to go on trips to Europe several times while growing up. Along the way I have been to some of the most beautiful and famous cathedrals there, from Westminster Abbey to the Vatican with many in-between. I decided by the age of 6 or 7 that I was definitely not a Christian (despite being raised Catholic) but these buildings have always spoken to me, not as houses of God but as some of the most inspiring examples of the cleverness and artistry of people. Sure, I know the history of some of them is filled with pretty horrific stories, but the end result can not be denied – they are gorgeous and awe-inspiring. The feature that usually binds them all together is the light pouring through the great windows, to some, evidence of holiness, to me, evidence of the wonders of our Sun.

VAB InteriorThe VAB is exactly like them in that respect. Each end of the center… hmmmmm… hallway isn’t the right word, drive seems wrong even though it’s somewhat fitting… anyway, each end has these gloriously large windows with beams from the bright Florida sun reaching towards us. One had an American flag hanging down the center that almost resembled stained glass from the glow, even though it was fabric. I had never felt quite so patriotic and proud as looking at that flag.

We are a nation of explorers. Our land was discovered repeatedly by brave souls who dared to take a chance on it’s wilderness. Our founding settlers risked everything to create their little pockets of civilization without any way of knowing what a grand one would result someday. Most of us have ancestors, even as close as our parents, who plunged into America looking for something not available where they were from, but with no real notion of what would be here when they arrived, just that it was supposed to be some vague “better”. These were blind leaps of faith at the extreme and they were utterly human.

The end result was this building and what it means to exploration in a whole other direction. Up and out, onwards and forwards. Even in this time of great uncertainty as to the future of space exploration (let’s face it, it changes with every election cycle now and those are way shorter than it takes to get a project literally off the ground) in our country, it is a powerful thing to recognize the capability we have and the intense human need to keep going and going and going…

Shuttle LiftWherever we go, whatever we do, even if the vehicle never enters this building, we could not possibly get there without it. I wish I could take every single person in the world and stand them there, right in the middle, to gaze at the machinery, the signatures on the walls from people who toiled so hard within it’s walls, and just the grandeur of it all. I dare someone to stand there and not realize how important it all is, from the lowliest assistant to the men and women who ride those rockets, from the small rockets carrying satellites that teach us about our home planet and environs to the giants that allowed man to walk on a completely different surface and even live in space.

I have beheld the power of humanity and it is AWESOME.

Marriage, Timing, and a Dose of Reality October 3, 2009

Posted by craftlass in beliefs, current issues, marriage.
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While I’m on the subject of marriage, can I rant about my other pet peeve that pertains to it? Oh, yeah, this is my own blog and I can write what I want, no matter how unpopular it may make me. I don’t do this to get fans but to air out my brain, which is why I try to stay anonymous here.

Okay, to the topic at hand now:
My state, New Jersey, has a 3-day waiting period for a marriage license. Wisconsin has the longest in the country at 6 days. Nevada famously has none.
Waiting periods seem to frustrate people who wish to elope immediately, as hilariously portrayed in How I Met Your Mother a few seasons ago (the “Atlantic City” episode, to be specific). I have actually heard that complaint in real life, too.
So, here’s my question for the world, why elope? I understand wanting to go do it alone if you have loved ones who might cause trouble if you announced your marriage, but I don’t understand the immediacy unless one of you is about to deploy and is worried about survivor benefits (I still think that can easily be a mistake but at least there’s practical logic behind it). Come to think of it, if your family or friends could ruin your decision to wed what chance does your marriage have?
Marriage is the second biggest decision you can make (after the choice to have children or not). Even with the option of divorce a marriage will affect the rest of your life. Shouldn’t a whole lot of time be dedicated to considering such a leap?
People are amazingly good at hiding their true selves for about one to two years. Those under 30 are especially capable of this as they probably don’t know themselves all that well yet (there are likely exceptions but I know that was true of all of the people I’ve ever come in contact with). According to the CDC, the chance of a marriage surviving goes up dramatically if the woman is over 25 (the highest age group they accounted for was 25 and up and they only surveyed women). I find that incredibly unsurprising despite the fact that I have been with my partner since I was 20. Then again, if we’d married back then we would almost certainly have divorced, there was plenty of turmoil and times where we thought it was over in the early years. Instead, we’re a happy couple who are more bonded than I ever dreamed I could be with anyone and I give a lot of credit to the fact that we had the freedom to easily split up. We didn’t even live together until just before our 10th anniversary.
An old acquaintance once told me that the main benefit to marriage was that it creates an extra hurdle to leaving each other, which makes trying to work things out more appealing. I disagree. To me, that extra hurdle can leave you feeling trapped and we all know how a wild animal reacts to being cornered. It’s not pretty and rational thought is long gone at that point.
To those who say love isn’t a rational thing and marriage should be all about love, well, you’re right but any time you sign ANY legally-binding document there should be plenty of non-emotional thought put into it. Marriage is, first and foremost, a legal mechanism. Can you be 100% sure of the decision to marry? Of course not, but you can hedge your bets by taking the time to get as objective as possible about your prospects.
Love does NOT conquer all, either. Nor is it something that can happen at first sight, as one of my favorite people used to say, “It’s really lust at first sight. Love takes a long time to develop, until then it’s all about hormones and brain chemistry and those factors fade.” Real love needs to be tested thoroughly as well. I have been through a lot of traumatic experiences and found that they can wreck a relationship or strengthen it. The latter is the kind of relationship that can last, as there is no avoiding a certain amount of catastrophes in life.
If you haven’t spent a minimum of two years with someone, how can you have shared the experiences that give clues to how your partner reacts to stressful situations? If you haven’t seen those reactions how can you even guess that you have the capability to survive real life together?
If anything, the waiting periods for marriage licenses should be lengthened and maybe we should even take a hint from the Catholics and their pre-cana requirements. I rarely agree with the Catholic Church on anything but my parents were pre-cana volunteers and many of my views were shaped by listening to their sessions with young couples. Quite a few had no idea what they were getting into before pre-cana and taking the time to talk about the reality of marriage not only taught them about what could be expected but they clearly learned a lot more about each other by participating in the process. If pre-marital counseling of any kind makes one or both partners uncomfortable how can you possibly expect to be able to work together effectively once legally bound?
Marriage is the beginning of a journey rather than a goal. You should prepare for the trip just as you would prepare for a long-term safari in a dangerous region without a guide or any other grand adventure.

What Does it Really Mean to Be a Married Gay Today? September 18, 2009

Posted by craftlass in beliefs, current issues, marriage equality.
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I may seem like an unlikely proponent of marriage equality, as I’m generally not pro-marriage, have never wanted to marry, and live with a man who is my long-term partner. So, you’d think marriage laws wouldn’t be a passion of mine, but I abhor inequality and anytime people are restricted from doing anything they would like to do that doesn’t hurt (or, in this case, even affect most) other people.

So, gay marriage is a cause I care about to the bottom of my brain and heart. I would also like for society to accept people (especially women) who choose to never marry, but I think marriage equality may actually be a more achievable goal in this country.
Why am I bringing this up today? I followed a “Follow Friday” message from my friend (@souphead) and ended up on a new site by one of her friends, Ruby. Ruby is a very smart and funny lesbian who married her wife while it was legal in California and mother of one of the most beautiful babies around. The happy family has decided to take a road trip across America to ponder the question, “Are We Married?” and what it really means as they spend time in states with widely varying laws. I’m looking forward to following their story, I’m sure they will have wonderful and thoroughly horrible adventures along the way (based on my own experiences traveling around America as a non-traditionally-minded person) and that Ruby will wittily report on them all.
If this family isn’t a perfect example of why marriage equality is vital to our citizens, I don’t know who is.
It’s impossible to understand how anyone can preach “family values” and yet tell two loving mothers who value their family above all that they are in breach of them. I am very smart with test scores to prove it and quite creative in many ways and yet I can not wrap my brain around how people even come to these notions that have no bearing on reality.
Regardless of where you stand on this issue you should read Ruby’s blog and get a glimpse of what it really means to be married as a lesbian in this nation at this crossroads in public policy and private beliefs.
Next up: What is really the greatest threat to the sanctity of marriage?

Death Penalty Truly Does = Homicide September 7, 2009

Posted by craftlass in beliefs, current issues, politics.
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Capital punishment. Just the words make my blood run cold. I am not a great believer in the Bible but I have often thought that was one of the best lessons of the New Testament, that capital or even corporal punishment are not the way to handle justice on any level.


On a logical level, it is nearly impossible to know a person’s actions with 100% accuracy. Even video can lie, heck, you could be standing there watching something happen and not know the truth. It happens all the time, even to highly observant types.

The only good argument I’ve ever heard for the death penalty can be summed up in Ted Bundy’s escape from prison via a law library and the subsequent murders he committed before Florida put him to death. However, that level of cunning is rare and Ted Bundy is an exception to many “rules” of criminal behavior. We like to pin the label sociopath onto all kinds of criminals but the truth is they are incredibly rare yet share the trait of most criminals that the death penalty is not even slightly a deterrent to them. If anything, it just ups the stakes of the game and makes it more interesting.

Well, I’m off on a tangent again. The point is, I’ve always been against capital punishment, but today I read an article that made my veins particularly icy and included a sentence that, to me, is the truly unrefutable argument to be made against it: “On his death certificate, the cause was listed as ‘Homicide.'”

I don’t know if that’s standard, but it certainly makes sense, as it is quite intentional and thus homicide. Still, to see that we completely admit that we, as a society, are committing homicide on a regular basis just makes a horrifying concept seem that much more contentious. I’d honestly never thought about what they put on the death certificate in such cases before.

Even scarier, what the article was largely about was the appalling state of arson investigation in this country. If you watch much prime time television you must have seen some amazing arson investigations using all sorts of gizmos and scientific methodology. Well, it turns out that is more fictional than I thought. “In 1997, the International Association of Arson Investigators filed a legal brief arguing that arson sleuths should not be bound by a 1993 Supreme Court decision requiring experts who testified at trials to adhere to the scientific method.” Seriously? I don’t even have words (and that is extremely rare, as you may know if you’ve been reading this blog). Arson investigators often claim their profession is more of an art than a science. I’m sorry, but if you are going to kill me over something, I’d like some solid factual science to be behind it. Luckily, in this case the Supreme Court agrees, but arson investigators are still grappling with the concept.

Why is this country so much more accepting of art than science? Alas, that will have to be a discussion for another day.

The excellent article from the New Yorker that inspired these thoughts is a long one but well worth the time:

Cameron Todd Willingham, Texas, and the death penalty: newyorker.com

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World’s Smallest Political Quiz August 14, 2009

Posted by craftlass in beliefs, education, politics.
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One fact about my family has defined more about the way I look at everything than any other: My father has been a passionate Republican for my whole life while my mother was just as passionate of a Democrat. It was like growing up with James Carville and Mary Matalin in reverse, only not political operatives but just intelligent and educated voters who care. Objectively, their points of view were unsurprising, as he was an executive at large companies while she was a Ph.D. who opted to teach in and, eventually, run public high schools instead of working in the relative luxury of colleges. They generally lived by what they preached and that obviously led to some heated debates at the dinner table. While this drove me absolutely nuts as a child it also made me learn the importance of being politically aware very early on.

The second most important lesson I learned is to respect people who disagree with you. Sometimes it feels like I’m the only person in Generations X or Y who feels that way. The vitriol between parties makes me physically ill when it’s my friends spouting it. Disagreements are necessary and even helpful but the sheer petty meanness from both major parties is purely depressing and helps not one single person in this world.

Even worse, I’ve never fit on the right/left line, so the debates have always made me feel like even more of an outcast than I felt from being a geeky girl with odd interests all my life. I’ve also found that a lot of people I’ve met who THINK they know what party they belong in actually disagree quite a lot with that party. That’s one of the many problems of a two-party system, many (if not most) people join a party that fits one or two of their pet issues and ignore that party’s position on everything else.

So, you can imagine how thrilled I was to receive an email from Dad with a link to The World’s Smallest Political Quiz and a note about how he was surprised by his results. I immediately took it and, while not surprised when it told me I was a libertarian (I joined the Libertarian party a while back after doing a lot of research before transferring my voter registration to a new state), it was a revelation to see just how intensely libertarian I am. What validation! People have been trying to convince me I’m a Democrat for years despite my enormous issues with many of that party’s stances and their underlying system of beliefs. I knew that wasn’t right.

Being a natural skeptic in general, though, I felt the need to test the quiz a bit further and had my boyfriend take it. He scored precisely where I expected, as pretty much a super-liberal. Yup, I ended up with a significant other almost as different in his beliefs as my mother was to my father. We really do grow up to be our parents!

So now I want to encourage everyone in the country to take this quiz, it only takes a couple of minutes but it is by far the best way I’ve found to distill what you think into something quantifiable. The other wonderful thing about the quiz is that it will lead you into ways to explore the parties you might fit well into, regardless of which they may be. No matter how politically aware you may be there is always more to learn. Always.

Perhaps the most important thing about this quiz and the group that publishes it is that they are trying to redefine the political landscape, get away from the left/right line that leaves so many people like me out in the cold. Libertarians AREN’T conservatives, as many people think, and statists aren’t liberals. They use a diamond-shaped chart that makes so much more sense than any straight line ever could, the world isn’t flat and neither should our political options be. There is no category where you can divide the nation’s population into exactly two positions, let alone one as sophisticated and complicated as politics.

John Adams famously said, “There is nothing I dread so much as a division of the Republic into two great parties, each arranged under its leader and converting measures into opposition to each other.” The man should be considered a prophet.

Please take this quiz!

The link again: The World’s Smallest Political Quiz